For anyone who has seen the gripping trailer for Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips the line “I am the captain now” is a chilling one that perfectly sums up the battle of wills at the heart of the film. Spoken by Somali pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) to Tom Hanks’ title character, the line sets in motion a film that is never anything less than a riveting, emotionally injected rollercoaster and, as ever with much of Hollywood’s best output, it’s based on a harrowing true story.
Setting sail aboard his fully loaded cargo ship, Captain Richard Phillips embarks on a voyage around the Horn of Africa. With news bulletins alerting him to Somali pirates in the surrounding ocean, he insists his crew run a drill should the worst happen. Moments later it is happening as Phillips spots two boats approaching his vessel at high speed. After a brief skirmish with the pirates, Phillips hides his crew below deck and finds himself forced to search his own ship at gunpoint. Led by the calculating Muse, the pirates won’t settle for small change, they have bosses just like Phillips and they’re here for a big score.
Writer Billy Ray and director Paul Greengrass have created an utterly compelling and genuinely moving piece of cinema. In other hands, possibly a Michael Bay, Captain Phillips could easily have become a demonstration of the strength of the US Navy, military porn demonstrating the resources to which the nation will go to in order to protect its own. Thankfully Ray and Greengrass fashion something more political, more poignant and altogether more satisfying.
The pirates are never painted as villains but rather, like Phillips, men doing a job for which they will be paid. The film opens with Phillips discussing with his wife Andrea – played with brief, understated brilliance by Catherine Keener – the turbulent working world their children will soon find themselves in. Phillips notes that it’s no longer about just working hard, it’s about proving you’re better than the fifty other guys applying for the job. Muse is that one in fifty pirate. He’s willing to push his crew further than his rivals and is ruthlessly single-minded in his goals. So intricate and detailed does the film paint Phillips and Muse you cannot help but wonder if the two could have been friends under different circumstances.
This dynamic is crucial to the film’s resounding success. Hanks, on typically stellar form, imbues Phillips with a sense of strength in the face of adversity. He’s not a Bruce Willis who is going to pick up a gun and save the day, instead he’s a man facing a very real, very terrifying situation and trying to put everyone else’s wellbeing before his own. There should be no doubt that once again Hanks will be front and centre of awards season for his performance; one scene towards the end is so emotionally charged it will take every fibre in your being not to break down in tears as Phillips begins to realise exactly what is happening. Opposite him, Abdi – a first time actor perfectly cast to the role – is constantly analysing, sizing up his opposite number and never falling into the arrogance of thinking he can gain the upper hand unless he outsmarts Phillips. His mannerisms are chilling, looking at Phillips with tilted head, an attack dog just waiting to be unleashed. But beyond that there is genuine sincerity, his constant repetition of “Everything is going to be okay” injected with a sense of promise rather than threat.
Greengrass, always at his finest dealing with characters in heightened situations, uses his trademark hand-held style to immersive levels. As the environments get smaller and more claustrophobic, so Greengrass draws us more deeply into the thoughts of the characters. The slow build-up allows you to feel as if you are part of the crew, desperate to stand alongside our heroic captain but forced to witness him stand alone against impossible odds. Every beat that passes racks the tension taught enough to not just chew on but give you serious digestive issues.
Even if you know how it’s all going to end, Captain Phillips is a film so tense at times it will dunk you under, leave you there, only to release you for a gulp of air before submerging you again. While Captain Phillips has stormy waters ahead of him, the film is an unequivocal voyage of nerve shredding brilliance.